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COVID-19 cases are rising in U.S. prisons. I’m worried my father might be affected

Government officials must work to protect incarcerated people during this pandemic.

Kharon Benson and his dad
The author, Kharon Benson, with his father, who is currently incarcerated at Greene Correctional Facility in New York.   Photo: Echoes of Incarceration / AFSC

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported coronavirus cases are rising sharply in U.S. prisons, even as numbers have plateaued in communities across the U.S. There are now more 65,000 cases in prisons—at least 600 people have died.

Right now, my father is among the more than two million people locked up in prisons, jails, or detention centers across the country—places where social distancing is nearly impossible, and a lack of access to adequate medical care becomes particularly dangerous during a pandemic. I worry about my father every day.

Like every one of us, my father deserves to have his health, human rights, and dignity protected. That’s why I’m standing with him and all incarcerated people, their loved ones, and communities to urge government officials to do everything in their power to protect people in prison from COVID-19.

Take action: Tell governors and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to protect people in prison from COVID-19!

Government officials need to do more to curb the spread of this deadly virus. That’s why we’re calling on governors and the leadership of ICE to take steps to protect incarcerated people. Those steps include releasing people who are elderly, have medical conditions, or would otherwise be eligible; releasing those awaiting trial or held in ICE custody; providing access to COVID-19 testing and essential medical services; and helping incarcerated people stay connected to their loved ones on the outside.

In March, New Jersey took a step in the right direction, releasing as many as 1,000 people to reduce the spread of the virus. But New York and most other states have failed to act as the crisis continues to worsen.

My father has been locked up since I was three years old. I’m 27 now. He has already served 25 years of a 25-to-life sentence. He should not be caged. He should be home with his family where he belongs, especially during this time.

Photo: Echoes of Incarceration

While incarcerated, my father has accomplished so much, including earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree. But his biggest accomplishment, in my eyes, is being the best father he could be.

It’s very hard to be a parent, but it’s especially hard to be a parent to a loved one outside of prison. A lot of people feel like you can’t do much from behind prison walls, but my father—and a lot of parents—are doing a great job of it. He has supported me throughout my life. He inspired me to get involved with advocacy for people affected by mass incarceration. He pushed me to go to college.

My father was granted parole two years ago, but it was rescinded due to a processing error where the parole board failed to contact the victim’s son. My father appealed the decision, and the last time I talked to him, he was really excited because he was expecting to hear news about his appeal soon. I haven’t heard from him since.

It’s inhumane that we’re continuing to cage people, especially during this time. Our loved ones have already been stripped away from us for too long. We should be seeing a lot of people coming home right now. Instead, they’re being kept in harm’s way.

It’s scary to hear what’s happening in these prisons and wondering, “What the hell is my dad going through right now?” But I don’t know what he’s experiencing. I don’t know what’s going on in that facility.

I wish I could call him every day. But I can’t. So I will continue to advocate for him and many others locked up during this pandemic and tell government officials to protect our loved ones who are incarcerated. And I will do all I can to bring them back home.

Contact your governor and ICE today: Tell them to protect people in prisons from COVID-19.

About the Author

Kharon Benson is a filmmaker and advocate working to end mass incarceration. He is a member of Echoes of Incarceration, which trains young people to tell their stories and advocate for change.

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